Will Britain have a hung parliament?

Lord Heseltine is predicting a hung parliament after this year's General Election, but bookies are putting the odds at about 30%. So could Britain really end up with a minority government after the next election? And if so, does it matter? Simon Wilson reports.

Lord Heseltine is predicting one. Bookies put the odds at about 30%. So could Britain end up with a minority government after the next election? And does it matter? Simon Wilson reports.

How likely is a hung parliament?

"Very likely" if you believe Lord Heseltine. The Tory elder predicted six months ago that the next election due by 3 June but widely predicted to be scheduled by Gordon Brown for 6 May will end with no party in overall control of the House of Commons.

Heseltine's reasoning is simple: to win the 326 seats required to control the 650-seat House, the Conservatives will need the biggest electoral swing (with two exceptions) since 1945. And a bigger one than even Margaret Thatcher managed in the spring of 1979, following the Winter of Discontent.

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In short, the odds are stacked against them. Oddly, the bookies and political punters don't yet seem to agree, putting the chances of a hung parliament at around the one in three mark (see below).

Why are they unusual?

First, for much of the last century we had only two big parties: Labour and the Conservatives. And second, we use the first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system.

However, the high watermark of the Labour-Tory duopoly was in October 1951, when 96% of voters put their crosses next to the candidates of Churchill or Attlee. By October 1974 (Heath versus Wilson) that proportion was 75%, and in May 2005 it was scarcely two-thirds.

That doesn't mean that the Lib Dems are set to make a stunning breakthrough their support is hovering around the 20% mark, tops. But the decline of two-party dominance does mean the chances of a hung parliament are much higher, especially since the voting system is currently stacked against the Tories.

Why are the odds higher now?

In a perfectly 'fair' first-past-the-post system, all the constituencies would be of an equal size. There are Boundary Commissions in all four parts of Britain whose job it is to monitor constituencies and recommend adjustments.

But these reviews only take place about once every ten years. And right now, Tory constituencies are much bigger than Labour ones, largely because current boundaries haven't yet caught up with the population drift from urban centres to the countryside and suburbs (where more people vote Tory).

This in-built bias in the voting system means that, in 2005, the Tories polled 41,983 votes for every seat they took, compared to just 28,111 for Labour. The boundaries were last redrawn in 2007, but even these are nearly ten years out of date, being based on the 2001 census.

The new boundaries do help the Tories a little, cutting the swing required for an overall majority from 7.4% to 6.9%. But they need to be at least 9% ahead of Labour to be sure of an outright win. Labour only needs to be level.

As for the Alternative Vote system recently mooted by Gordon Brown as an olive branch to the Lib Dems, it is largely a PR stunt that wouldn't actually change much.

Will a hung parliament mean a weak government?

Not necessarily. A coalition of the kind common in European democracies with proportional voting systems is unlikely. More likely is an attempt to form a minority government and win support from the Lib Dems on a piecemeal basis.

There were only two hung parliaments in the 20th century. In 1929, Ramsay MacDonald had 27 more seats than the Tories, and led a minority administration fairly successfully for two years before the Labour party split over an austerity budget.

So today's fears that a hung parliament will lead to instability, spook the financial markets and result in an early second election derive from the only other example, 1974. That year saw two elections in which the term 'hung parliament' was coined by The Economist.

Back then the parties were so close (the Tories won the popular vote, just, but won four fewer seats than Labour) and had so little common ground that a rematch was all but inevitable. The same isn't necessarily true this time round.

Why not?

Both The Guardian's Larry Elliott and the FT's Martin Wolf argue that fears of what a hung parliament might do to Britain's credit rating, gilts market and currency have been much exaggerated.

Recent research by the House of Commons library shows that, of the ten largest fiscal tightenings in OECD countries since 1970, seven of them were pushed through by coalition or minority governments, all of them in Europe.

Any hint that tough decisions were being bottled as per Harold Wilson in 1974 would lead to a sell-off in sterling assets. But equally, cross-party support for tough measures might actually make British assets more attractive.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.